Lapo and Luke
Vault 1, St Angelo Waterfront, Vittoriosa
Tel: 2180 8990

Food: 7/10
Service: 7/10
Ambience: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Overall: 7/10

We live on a tiny island. At three hundred odd kilometres squared, you can get almost anywhere in an hour or so (assuming the hellscape that traffic has become is moderate at best). Which makes it a wonder why some things seem just too far away.

It’s the small island mentality that is ingrained into each of us. If an hour is the furthest you ever have to travel, then anything close to it seems like an eternity. A friend of mine recently purchased an apartment in Xemxija. To actually live in. I will miss them.

It is especially weird when you consider that the situation completely changes when we’re abroad. I’ve found myself happy to walk 12 kilometres around a city taking in the sights whereas I’ve whipped together a Pasta à la Fridge (my speciality) to avoid the 100-metre trek to the corner store for some actual ingredients.

With this new-found epiphany, I have now taken to the occasional ‘Tourist Day’ in my own country. The things you take for granted are often overlooked because they are the norm for us. Malta’s trademark balconies, our charmingly time-worn architecture and our constant proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. When seen through the eyes of an outsider, this island takes on an entirely different feel.  

It was on one of these rare days that we realised we hadn’t been to Vittoriosa in a long, long while. We walked through the winding streets for a while and soaked in the rustic charm. However, all this steeping in culture and whatnot works up a hearty appetite. So, with our stomachs guiding us, we found ourselves strolling along the scenic waterfront perusing the menus and making hard choices. Specifically, the kind of hard choices one makes when carefully considering a random sample of many local restaurants. That is, did we want pizza and grill, grill and seafood, seafood and pasta?

Not to malign some of our delicious local fare, but it does sometimes get a little bit on the repetitive side, especially if, like me, you’re prone to more than just the occasional dining experience. No, today was not the day for the same old same old. Today was a day for exploring and taking in something different; today was a day for a little culinary adventure. The only problem was where would we find it at short notice?

We were all but ready to throw in the adventure towel and settle for a pizza (and let’s be fair here, is a good pizza ever really settling?) when we came across Lapo and Luke. We were dumbfounded. A restaurant that sells itself as Asian and Latin American fusion… and we hadn’t heard of it?! This situation needed to be rectified immediately. So we grabbed a table and eagerly awaited service.

Our waitress was prompt and cheerful. She enthusiastically explained to us that Lapo and Luke was just months old and had replaced a vegetarian establishment that she had also worked in. At least that explained how we had gone so long without hearing about it. She gave us assurances that the food was far better now and her passion and effervescent nature gave me very high hopes.

A dangerous precedent was set.

We instantly delved into the menu with the appropriate amount of zeal. For starters, we settled on a serving of chicharrón and a couple of plates of bao buns. For the uninitiated, chicharrón is a dish made of deep-fried pork belly or pork rinds. And if those words were enough to set your oral juices flowing, you’re my kind of people.

Aubergines, marrows and the like stuck out like a fly on a wedding cake

The dish came with a hearty portion to split and an absolutely superb dipping sauce to accompany it. Fresh, zesty, and pleasantly acidic, the sauce was a perfect example of why the idea of South American and Asian fusion cuisine had set my stomach growling like the beast it is. Though a world separates the two continents (and of course they don’t contain just one cuisine each), they share enough in common to be a culinary match made in heaven. Love lime, coriander, and chili peppers? You might be just as happy in a Vietnamese kitchen as a Colombian one.

Following the chicharrón in rapid succession were a couple of beautiful plates of bao buns to share, one set containing an Asian-inspired chicken katsu and teriyaki mix, and the other stuffed full of beefy chili and cheese sauce. That was maybe a little more Tex-Mex than authentic South American, but I scoffed them too quickly to quibble.

The plates were certainly plentiful, and for the price we got a little more than we had bargained for with these dishes. True, they were a little bit on the messy side, but to me that’s part of the appeal – especially when chili is involved. Once again, the dishes were sauced beautifully (this was a running theme of the meal), and though I personally always prefer my chili to have a little more of a kick to it, I found the flavour built well with every passing bite I devoured. The katsu bao were similarly spot on, featuring crisp bits of breaded chicken cutlets happily tucked away in those oh-so-fluffy steamed buns and topped off with a healthy drizzle of teriyaki sauce. I’m not trying to say that you’d find either of these dishes in an authentic little eatery in downtown Kyoto or Rio, but that doesn’t stop them from being absolutely delicious just the same.

Having cleaned our plates, we were already a little more stuffed than we’d expected to be as we waited for our mains to arrive. If you’ve read any of my reviews in the past, you may have picked up that this is a running theme. Some things never change. We didn’t have much waiting to do, as both dishes were on their way out rather promptly.

One of our mains was unfortunately slightly mixed up – we had ordered the pork ribs but received an order of the sizzling pork belly instead. Luckily, it looked so tasty that we decided to keep it instead of waiting for a replacement dish. In all honesty, it had been a tough choice between the two on the menu anyway. Delivered on a sizzling plate and covered in a delicious Asian-inspired glaze, it certainly wasn’t lacking in flavour, though it was a little drier than I would generally expect a beautifully fatty piece of pork belly to be.

The second main dish on the table was a rib-eye steak, which was, sadly, very overdone. Luckily for us, the kitchen knew their way around a spice rub, which helped to give it a little more flavour. While the marinade helped to retain some of the juices lost by the overcooking, I feel it does affect the overall cook of the steak, and can lead to it being sort of parboiled instead of getting the beautiful grill that a good rib-eye deserves.

Overall, the flavour on the main dishes was there, but here’s the rub: the attention that Lapo and Luke’s kitchen gives to its beautifully sauced dishes clearly does not extend to the sides. When I think Asian or Latin American, I think bok choi, beans and pickled veggies, maybe some pepper and a hit of ginger for freshness. Don’t throw a half-hearted mix of grilled Mediterranean veggies into a bowl and attempt to sneak it past me. Aubergines, marrows and the like stuck out like a fly on a wedding cake.

And don’t even get me started on the potato wedges. The fact that there wasn’t even an attempt made to dress up these lazy side dishes as something vaguely resembling the restaurant’s supposed cuisine is nothing short of lazy. Details, people. Details matter. The devil is in them, and he wants some authenticity. This was a huge letdown. Some Papa Salada or Uruguayan Asado potatoes would be perfect, and nothing quite beats an Asian Slaw.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for the restaurant’s dessert selection. I don’t know why this is such a trend locally but by God if I see another sad rotating dessert fridge filled with pre-packaged cakes I am going to fill it with rocks and anchor it to the yachts. What’s so Latin American or Asian about cassatella and gateaux? There’s a time and place for tiramisu, and it’s not following ramen noodles and tacos. Condensed milk desserts are extremely popular in both cuisines. I hope to see dulce de leche on my next visit.

Sadly, it’s lack of attention to detail that keeps Lapo and Luke from scoring as highly as its delicious concept deserves. That’s not to say I won’t be back for another helping of chicharrón some time. Only you’d better keep me away from the damned dessert fridge.

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